Points of View 18th May 2016

Continue, Start, Stop? Some Reflections on the UK’s Third National Action Plan

by Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy is the IRM for the Open Government Partnership and a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

On the 12 May the government launched its third open government National Action plan for the OGP. It’s an interesting mixture, so here’s a quick overview of what’s ongoing, what’s new and what’s not there:

Continuing: despite David Cameron’s own difficulties over tax, his push over international tax transparency and anti-corruption continues. Perhaps the most high profile reform from the last national action plan was over Beneficial Ownership, a plan to make UK registered businesses open up data about who (really) owns them through a public register. We shall all be able to see this data very soon.

The new plan extends this principle to foreign companies who are either (i) buying property (ii) bidding for public contacts in the UK-see commitment 1. This is partly about tackling ‘dirty money’ in the UK property market and also about reacting to the Panama Papers.

The devil here is, as ever, in the detail. The consultation paper admits that finding effective sanctions for foreign businesses may be difficult. Opening up tax is truly a global struggle and how the reform fares may also depend on others. David Cameron admitted the US needed to be part of his ‘coalition of the committed’. Closer to home it seems some of the UK’s own tax haven territories and overseas dependencies have been less than enthusiastic about linking up their own registers-the Caymans called it pointless.  It remain to be seen whether super-rich foreStart/stopign property investors will all flee London when the data appears.

It’s not the only policy to be carried over from the last NAP. Extractives Transparency and anti-corruption initiative are also still a part of the new plan. This series of international issues in the NAP may well be labelled David Cameron’s legacy policies.

Start: there are some new developments not seen in the last plan. Changes to the Freedom of Information Act, rather oddly absent last time round, are now included, with the new plan incorporating some of the recommendations from the Independent Commission on FOI, covering publication of data on FOI use and greater transparency over senior public sector salaries.

A rather nice ‘do they not do that already’? idea is commitment 7 to ‘develop a common data standard for reporting election results’. This could fit with some of the crowd-sourcing projects like Out for the Count that asked techy savvy election watchers to crowd-source the local and devolved election results in May 2016.

Stop: some areas are left untouched from the last plan. This table shows the commitments pushed by civil society and their status-the civil society network points to ‘open budgeting, lobbying transparency and transparency of surveillance’ as outstanding missing commitments. For me the lack of anything on surveillance is disappointing, while the seemingly never-to-be-resolved issue of lobbying and party funding transparency remains stuck. There’s no apparent movement on police records, despite recent controversy over the Hillsborough verdict on South Yorkshire police. However, all is not lost. The plan does offer new commitments that can to be added as it goes along: it is a ‘rolling action plan’ with the capability to ‘add commitments and milestones…over the next two years’.

Other welcome news is that Commitment 13 of the plan commits to ‘ongoing collaboration’ with local government and devolved bodies. The Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish governments have already been pushing ahead with their own Open Data agendas while local government (and some soon to be local government powerhouses) such as Greater Manchester have been pushing a series of experiments. The devolved bodies have now signed up to be part of the 3rd NAP. Perhaps the most positive part of the new plan is not what is happening but who will be involved.

Image credit: Start, stop, by Marcin Wichary; Creative Commons

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